The biggest shift in technical regulations in more than a decade means that the cars racing in the 2009 World Championship look radically different.
The new regulations are designed to improve the quality of racing and in particular, to increase the likelihood of overtaking, by placing increased emphasis on mechanical grip. The new rules will at the same time keep lap times in check by reducing the role of aerodynamics in aiding the cars’ cornering performance.
As designers focussed their attention on aerodynamic aids in recent years, overtaking has become increasingly difficult. If a car was closely following another through a corner, the air turbulence from the car ahead would disrupt the airflow over the pursuing car’s wings, forcing it to run wide. It made it very difficult to get close enough to challenge on the straights. A series of sweeping changes to the rules covering the aerodynamic aids has therefore been initiated.
The most obvious changes are to the front and rear wings. Drivers will be allowed to make two wing adjustments per lap, it is anticipated that these may be used when following another car, to allow front wing grip to be maintained.The rear wing is taller, level with the top of the engine cover, but has been reduced in width to reduce its efficiency. In addition the diffuser, which controls the airflow around the rear axle, has been moved rearwards and is mounted higher, reducing its ability to generate downforce.
Slick & grip
Many people seem to think that these smooth tyres have no treads. Not so. The tread is still there, but without any grooves or patterns cut in it. A full slick tyre has the maximum amount of rubber in contact with the road – and hence maximum mechanical grip. There will be an increase of 20% in grip over last year with the gains in cornering speeds being offset by the reduced downforce levels of the revised aerodynamic package. The aim is to make the cars more responsive to driver input, more spectacular to watch.
Drivers will still have the choice of two dry tyre compounds and will still have to use both compounds during a race. Wet weather tyres will of course be used when required too. It should add up to closer, even more exciting racing.
The biggest technical change for the 2009 season is that teams have the option of employing a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) which recovers energy generated from the rear wheels by the car’s braking process. Previously this energy was simply lost as heat, now it can be stored using either a mechanical flywheel or an electrical battery and then made available to the driver via a ‘boost button’ on the steering wheel.
The power gain equates to around 80 horsepower, available for just under seven seconds per lap. It could give a driver a vital boost, for example to aid overtaking, but the extra weight of the system and its impact on the car’s weight distribution, also have to be taken into account.
So far McLaren, Ferrari and Renault have confirmed that they will use the KERS system in Australia. Red Bull and BMW are also expected to likely follow suit. Toro Rosso won’t for the first two races at least, while Toyota, Williams, Brawn and Force India won’t use the new technology at all, preferring to optimise their cars to take advantage of their lighter weight.
In the final pre-season testing, three of the teams that eschewed the new technology have so far set the fastest lap times in testing. Toyota, Williams and Brawn GP (formerly Honda) have stolen the advantage from their rivals by cleverly finding a loophole in the rules surrounding the underbody diffuser, which creates additional downforce at the rear of the car.
So who will be on top in Melbourne? My money goes on Ferrari, with maybe Kimi Raikkonen finding the new car more suited to his style than last year, although Felipe Massa too cannot be discounted nor the Brawn duo.
Steve Slater is a race commentator on STAR Sports